In the best sequence of the new Disney Plus film Togo, Willem Dafoe belts an abridged version of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech from William Shakespeare’s Henry V (“We few, we happy few”) to the team of dogs pulling his sled as they hurtle across the ice. “Now run, my pups!” Dafoe yells, as he finishes the speech. He loves the dogs, the dogs love him, and I love Togo.
The pleasures of Togo, the latest (and to my mind, best) original Disney Plus movie, largely hinge on the simple joy of watching Dafoe interact with dogs, as a good half of his dialogue consists of “Good dog!” or “Come on, puppies!” Directed by Ericson Core (cinematographer of The Fast and the Furious, director of the 2015 Point Break remake), Togo tells a simple “man and his dog” story built around a real-life 1925 health crisis, and strips away almost everything that doesn’t have to do with the simple pleasures of watching the usually gruff or villainous Willem Dafoe hang out with a bunch of fluffy dogs.
In 1925, a dog-sled relay transported diphtheria antitoxin across Alaska to prevent an incipient outbreak in Nome. The relay, which came to be known as the Great Race of Mercy, vaulted Balto, the lead sled dog on the final stretch, to stardom, earning him a statue in Central Park and an animated movie. The dog Togo and his musher Leonhard Seppala (Dafoe), however, covered the longest and most dangerous leg of the run, going almost double the distance of any other team. Togo serves as something of an excavation of history, giving the overshadowed pair their day in the sun.
The central drama of the film, however, is less about saving human lives than about Seppala’s bond with his dog. Seppala agrees to the initial plan of sending just two teams to complete the race for the sake of the greater good (ultimately, 20 mushers participated), but as the race begins, the most immediate, pressing concern Seppala has is for Togo’s life. The back half of the film centers almost solely on Togo’s health as the grueling run takes its toll; the antitoxin barely factors in.
That focus is driven home by the flashbacks peppered throughout the film, detailing Togo’s upbringing. The pup is initially a problem for Seppala, who tries to offload him twice (no!!!) to other families due to his small size and rowdy temperament, only for the puppy to escape (yes!!!) and return to the Seppala homestead. Seppala can’t stand the dog, but when he puts Togo into a sled harness after the dog once again chases after and disrupts Seppala’s team, everything clicks into place. Togo is a sled-pulling prodigy — the grouchy Seppala and the lively dog were meant to be a team.
Unlike in the majority of Disney’s recent films, Togo (as a puppy and as a grown dog) is a flesh-and-blood animal rather than a CGI creation, and the film is better for it. There’s no need to convince the audience that this dog is real, or that Dafoe is really embracing his four-legged best friend rather than a foam chunk or empty air. And most importantly, there’s no uncanny valley to cross. Togo is, without a doubt, an incredibly cute dog. The action around him taps directly into the vein of human fascination with dogs that has yielded an entire genre of YouTube videos of pets reacting to their owners returning from overseas, or refusing to leave their ailing owners’ bedsides. This is the emotion that drives stories like Futurama’s ever-potent “Jurassic Bark” episode.
At just under two hours, Togo pushes the formula a little further than it’s meant to go, but Dafoe is so charismatic — his Shakespeare recitation could easily be paired with his “hark” monologue in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse — that most of the film’s runtime flies by. Core also has a knack for action, turning what could be a mostly monotonous trek through the snow into a beautiful tableau. Wide shots capture the dogs as specks moving through a vast and endless whiteness, or as the only moving spots in a grid of black trees, rendered into points of darkness by a bird’s-eye view.
Simpler techniques — flashbacks rendered in warm colors, while the unfolding race is solely icy blues — help bolster Dafoe’s performance, and so does a surprisingly stacked supporting cast that includes Julianne Nicholson as Seppala’s wife, Constance. Christopher Heyerdahl, Michael McElhatton, Richard Dormer, Zahn McClarnon, and Nive Nielson fill out the rest of the movie as the residents of Nome and the people Seppala meets while en route.
But the real joy of Togo is simple: Willem Dafoe plus dog, and sometimes Willem Dafoe plus dogs, plural. He tells them they’re good dogs. (They are.) They lick his face. (So would I.) As they race through the ice and snow, they bring a sense of warmth and life to the landscape. It’s wonderful.
Togo will debut on Disney Plus on Dec. 20.